That's not him, obviously. That's Keira Knightley, in A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg's new film, and below the fold are Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen as Jung and Freud.
The interview, which I've edited from the transcript more minimally than I might have under other circumstances, was meant to appear in the discontinued Nomad edition, Wide Screen. Its loss is your gain! My review of A Dangerous Method for MSN Movies is here. Some prior thoughts on the film based on my New York Film Festival look at it are here. The interview follows. I have deleted our greeting pleasantries.
KENNY: I saw the film a couple of times, and I saw your press conference with Michael Fassbender at Lincoln Center. And you said during the press conference that when you're making a film that you never or rarely if at all think about stuff you've done before, themes relative to things you've done before, but sometimes that's the critic's job to do that. And I was thinking relative to a few things that this film reminded me—there's a scene in the film where Keira's character is receiving the treatment and she's breaking down a bit with Michael's Jung and she talks about how she's vile and she needs to be put away and never allowed to be let out. And that and a few other things reminded me, many things that the film's theme is partially about, the threat of a woman's sexuality. And it reminded me a little bit of Rabid. And because her presence in is so disruptive, in a way, to the world of Jung and Freud and I was wondering if I might be on to something and if you'd elaborate on it, if so.
CRONENBERG: Sure. Well, once again, I mean quite apart from Rabid or any connections it had, it was absolutely of the essence of psychoanalysis. How sexuality in general is disruptive. And certainly one of Freud's revolutions was to give full acknowledgement to a woman's sexuality. Freud has been criticized by feminists at some points for his patriarchal elements and so on. But in fact, it can't be denied that he was one of the first—especially in that era, where women were revered as goddesses but were therefore not supposed to have sexuality or intellect—one of the first to give full voice to both women's intellect and sexuality. And that's one of the reasons why Freud was considered subversive and disruptive and dangerous. It was not just because of sex but also because of female sex. There's no question about it. And here was—you have in that scene that you're talking about—and that's a real quote from Sabina. That's accurate reporting, she did say those things in her diary. She…the whole idea that a woman should suddenly be asked for the first time to talk about these things, that was the talking cure. It sounds innocuous to say it's the talking cure, but nobody wanted to hear what these crazy people had to say, until Freud said, no, no, you should listen to the crazy people because they are telling you what's going on. They're telling you how to heal them, telling you what's wrong with them. And of course in Sabina's case, for a young woman to be talking about being sexually aroused by her father's beatings was completely unacceptable and completely, you know, just intolerable. And suddenly for the first time she has a man who she doesn't know giving her permission to talk about those things. And with the concomitant sort of pain and trying to say the things and then trying not to say the things. So yeah, I mean I think whether it connects—the various things that are disruptive forces, whether it's sexuality or other things, sure, of course they're of interest to—well, to me I think they're of interest to any dramatist really. Sex and death. I'm not the first. I can't claim to be the first to deal with them.
KENNY: Well, that's another interesting thing, because when we're talking…well, there were three things, themes that I thought about. Another being, this is also a film in a sense that's about the creation of the language that we use when we talk about what we talk about and when we talk about the themes of your films.
CRONENBERG: Well, it's also…it's really in a sense; and certainly John Kerr in his book, A Most Dangerous Method, said it this way: that these three people, in a way, invented the 20th century. They invented modernity. Up until this point, talking about those things, in that way, was unprecedented. You would never have men of the professional dignity and stature of Freud and Jung exchanging the letters that we have, that they did, talking about bodily fluids and orifices, erotic dreams and stuff. The stuff that people talk about all the time now, and you can see on anybody's blog. But it was unthinkable for people to talk about that stuff, especially, as I say, professional people. And then you had Sabina giving voice to the woman's version of that. And she was absolutely their intellectual equal. And they accepted her as that as well without condescension. Really, all of that was quite extraordinary, and was quite new.
KENNY: And one more thing that I think relates to some of your prior work is the theme that comes in a little later after the break between Freud and Jung, and it's in the conversation between--it's most prominent in the conversation between Freud and Sabina, and then of course in the title cards that tell you the fates of the respective protagonists, is the theme of the Jew, and the Jew as other, which is very close to something you explored most explicitly recently in the short film you made for Cannes, for the “Chacun son cinema” section in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the festival, a short called At The Suicide of The Last Jew In The World In The Last Cinema In The World.
CRONENBERG: That's quite true. It was absolutely also of the essence. I mean Freud was acutely aware of the position of Jewishness and Jews in Austria; he couldn't avoid it. At the time Jews were accepted in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but they had limited roles to play. They were not allowed to be in the military, they were not allowed to be in government. And he was very aware that psychoanalysis could be dismissed as Jewish mysticism, or some kind of Jewish charade or trick, or something. Which is why he was very straightforwardly desperate to get Jung to be the leader of psychoanalysis in the future, because Jung was a good bourgeois Protestant Swiss German. It would take the curse of Jewishness off the movement. And that was absolutely one of the attractions for Freud of Jung.
KENNY: Have you—in terms of this theme of Jew-as-other, being something you've been exploring more recently; is there a story behind that, or is this something that you may have been exploring in more implicit ways throughout your career, or--
CRONENBERG: No. No. I certainly have friends who as they get older, suddenly become Orthodox when they were not, prior to that, very interested in being Jewish. Is that what you're talking about?
CRONENBERG: Oh, yes, yes. No, no, I understand. No. I don't feel that process in me that way. It's almost accidental really. When they asked me to do this, the short for Cannes, and they said, “You can do anything you want”… that's what came up on the computer. And I had no idea why it should have particularly been at that moment, or not. And on the other hand, of course it took some years to get this movie [A Dangerous Method] made. And as you know, it would be nice…people often think that a director can just pick and choose. At this moment in my career I think it would be nice to do this. But really, it's so…you have five or six things and one of them gets financed and that's the one you do. So to me it's almost happenstance, this sort of Jewish element in the Freud-Jung story, Sabina as well. But when it's there, I'm happy to embrace it because it's certainly a real thing in the life of any Jew, actually. And I certainly relate to Freud's version of Jewishness, because he was an atheist, and he was absolutely this sort of secular, liberal kind of Jew that a lot of people hate, including other Jews. So I certainly relate to that. So I had no problem enjoying coming to grips with it, let's put it that way. It wasn't as though I was seeking it out, I suppose that's what I could say.
KENNY: Yes, some day when I write my Dictionary of Received Critical Ideas, the “directors can pick and choose” entry will be close to the “directors do one for the studio and one for themselves” entry.
CRONENBERG: Yes. You're right about all of that.
KENNY: What about Jung's flirtations with mysticism? As someone who's worked in the horror genre but with a resolute resistance to ideas of the supernatural, do you think Freud's hostility or what we might perceive as hostility was in fact correct? And do you think Jung was--you don't--there's no very definitive statement in the film as to what it is that Jung is experiencing as he describes it. You sort of let it be.
CRONENBERG: Yes, I really felt--one of the things that attracted me to [screenwriter] Christopher [Hampton]’s treatment was that it was agenda-free. It was neutral. He wasn't trying to elevate Freud at Jung's expense or vice versa. And I like that. Really it was a project of resurrection, as I've said; to bring them back to life, as neutrally as possible and then let them do what they did. The implications of what they said and what they did would be what they really were. And I think we sort of--we did that. Jung, though, we know, went exactly where Freud was afraid he would go, into Aryan mysticism, which made him a nice fit for the Nazis. At least at first. And certainly Jung was quite an enthusiast in terms of Hitler at the beginning. And you can see why, because his whole symbolic thing, the thing called “Ahnenerbe” which meant the Aryan ancestral inheritance. The corresponding thing to that being that the Jews are rootless, the idea of the wandering Jew. So these ideas hold that although Aryans are less sophisticated, and don't have that many thousands of years of sophisticated history, they do have this relationship with the soil, with blood and soil.
And Jung's whole idea of the collective unconscious is completely a religious, platonic structure. It has no basis in psychology, as far as I'm concerned. I have a friend who says Jung would have been better off talking about the “collective conscious.” It would have made more sense. But in any case, I think that Jung became what he first derided in his youth. His father was a pastor. And he had six uncles who were also pastors. And he derided his father at first for his “weakness.” But I think he eventually became that. He wanted to become a religious leader and lead his flock to spiritual self-realization. And that was exactly what Freud thought he would do.
KENNY: It's interesting too because those cultural currents you discussed, they're all there in the film in a root form, of sorts, when you go into, of course, Wagner.
CRONENBERG: Yeah, well exactly. There's the sort of double irony really because Wagner…you know, it's an interesting thing. At a certain point, in one of Christopher’s early drafts of the script, he has Sabina ask Jung, “Do you like Wagner?” he had Jung say, “The music yes, the man no.” And that's a common approach to Wagner, people who hate his anti-Semitism can't deny that he's a wonderful artist. And I asked Christopher, what his justification was for that. If he had a source for that, because everything I'd read about Jung suggested that he would have no problem admiring Wagner, even including his anti-Semitism. And Christopher admitted that he just liked the sound of the response. Well, that's when he changed it. And I have Jung say “the music and the man.” And so there you have the irony. That Wagner’s era was the era of the genius. Genius was a profession in those days, and had been for a long time. It was Goethe, then it was Wagner, it was Nietzsche. You could aspire to be a genius. And even for Jews, even though they knew that Wagner was anti-Semitic, they couldn't help but sort of worship him, especially if one was a German-speaking person. He was a towering genius and you couldn't resist that.
KENNY: Sure. It's fascinating and it must have been interesting for you, as a writer, to bounce stuff of someone as accomplished and brilliant as Christopher.
CRONENBERG: Oh yeah. We had a lot of fun together. And immediate mutual respect. And Christopher's got a very good sense of humor. No question of being inflated by self-importance or anything like that. And he's also a director. So he's in on the other side. So we had a great collaboration. And primarily aside from little reality checks like that one I just described, it was mainly my helping to decide with him what we left in and what we left out. Because I really like to have a nice tight script. We cut about 14 pages out of his original script. That's really my one contribution to his work.
KENNY: I want to talk a little bit about the actors. And their looks, I was fascinated by what you did with Knightley by everything in the film is so orderly, the costumes, the grooming of Freud's beard. And she comes in and she's like this white and sepia smudge in the middle of the frame. And she stays that way, even as she gets better. You visualize her disruptive force in a very interesting way.
CRONENBERG: Yes. Well, the style of the movie really comes from the era. It was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There were 700 years, at peace for 40 years, they really felt that everything was just progressing beautifully, everybody knew his place, everything was controlled. And so I wanted to deliver the era without making a big deal out of it in the way that you have described. And then here we have Sabina, who is the essence of the id, in a sense. She is what Freud is talking about. And is exactly what made Freud's method be considered to be dangerous, which is that she is a disruptive, volatile force, very passionate, very sexual, very connected with her id, in Freudian terms. And so she represents that in the movie, definitely.
KENNY: It's interesting; the other affinity I found with Marilyn Chambers' character in Rabid is her vulnerability. She's afraid of her power, afraid of what she can do with it. And yet she has to go ahead.
CRONENBERG: Yes. Yes. No, I think that's absolutely true. Compelled to be free, compelled to be what she is.
KENNY: Right, because “freedom is freedom,” as Vincent Cassel’s character says…
CRONENBERG: That's exactly right. Freedom is a scary thing.
KENNY: Yeah. In working with Fassbender, he's so terrific and he's been in so many wonderful things lately, was he someone you were particularly eager to work with?
CRONENBERG: Yeah. We knew he was a hot up and coming actor. Really I saw him in Hunger, I saw him in Fish Tank. I saw him in Inglourious Basterds. And in Inglourious Basterds, when we first see him, he's got a sort of bristly moustache and is being a British officer. I thought, that looked like my Jung actually. Really it was just those three movies; they demonstrated his range and I had no doubt that he could bring something wonderful, that bearing and that presence. Of course Jung is only 29 when we meet him. Once again, for both men, you're sort of seeing them at an era in their life that is not normally depicted or thought of. I was confident that he would be terrific. And of course it was.
KENNY: It's just remarkable what he does. And Viggo Mortensen kind of subsumes his natural charisma in favor of an authoritative thing that he does beautifully.
CRONENBERG: Sure. That was the excitement, too; was to do something that is not obvious. You don't say Viggo Mortensen is obvious casting for Sigmund Freud. But once again, it was a Freud who was described by Stefan Zweig in his book, World of Yesterday, as being masculine, handsome, charismatic, all those things. Freud at the prime of his life and under siege. The assumption of authority was a defense. He knows that he, and his group, are under assault by the medical profession by all kinds of things, by the anti-Semitism, and so on. And also the humor of Freud, which you really see in his writing. Which could be of course very cutting and used as a weapon. It's all there. And so that was a joy, of presenting a formerly un-presented Freud.